Raymond James Stadium has seen some sloppy play over the years, but Saturday, the slop will be on purpose as more than 7,500 diehards are scheduled to compete in a grueling obstacle race that includes running up ramps, crawling through mud under barbed wire, slithering through rolling mud hills and jumping over fire.
The Special Ops Spartan Sprint will be an extreme test for those who dare participate, says race military liaison Tim Nye.
“This course is designed to push people to their limits, to make them realize they can overcome any obstacle, they can set goals and achieve them for themselves,” says Nye. “And they will know all of this at the finish line,”
Saturday's race marks the first in Tampa for the internationally renown Spartan series that began in Vermont in 2005, “to bring the Spartan ideal, and thrill of adventure racing, to millions of people,” according to the organization's website.
Though considered a sprint because the course is 3.5 miles, it will be anything but easy, starting with a dash up the ramps to the top of the north end of the stadium. And it only gets harder from there.
“Racers will be looking down at the barbed wire they'll have to crawl through,” says Nye, who retired from the Army as a colonel last year after 32 years, last serving as spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command. “So this will be mentally challenging as well as physically challenging.”
The idea to bring the race to Tampa was planted two years ago, says Nye, during International Special Operations Forces Week, when commandos from nine countries put on a capabilities demonstration that included “freeing” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn who was “taken hostage” by “violent extremists.”
With the success of the demonstration, which drew thousands to downtown Tampa to watch commandos in helicopters and boats take part in the simulated mayoral rescue, Socom was interested in a physical challenge event, said Nye. But Socom is “limited in the role it can play in any event like the Spartan Race by both law and regulation,” said Socom spokesman Ken McGraw. So race organizers, like any other community organization, requested an appearance by the Para-Commandos, the command's parachute team, which will drop onto the race course during the opening ceremonies.
There are also a lot of Socom personnel expected to participate, says Nye, who will also be competing, along with his daughter Rachel, who is coming down from Washington, D.C. to take part.
The opening ceremony will be spectacular, says Nye, because aside from the paratroopers, Army Sgt. Charles Claybaker, wounded in a 2010 Osprey crash in Afghanistan, will fire a flaming arrow from the ramp to a target in front of the stadium's north end. Buckhorn will officiate, Socom commander Adm. William McRaven will speak and Army Lt. Col. Tammy Glenn, from U.S. Central Command, will sing the National Anthem.
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Before any of that can happen though, a Spartan Race crew has to transform the stadium, and the grass lot at the north end, into a challenge-worthy obstacle course, itself no simple task.
“This is a first for us,” says Evan Gracey, the race build director, who arrived a few days earlier with three semi-trucks full of equipment to begin the transformation. “This is our first hybrid event. Usually we either run the race inside the stadium, or do it outside. This one will be both.”
On a foggy Wednesday morning, it is hard to tell that in just three days, there will be a world-class course ready for action. There are a few tents erected, a few holes dug, and the beginnings of the mud hills laid out and a lot of work ahead. But race director Michael Hartman says not to worry.
“We have a nine-day build cycle,” he says calmly as a small crew prepares the course. “We have a build crew of six key guys and four supporters. We'll be ready.”
The Spartan Race team travels the world setting up about 170 races a year, says Hartman.
Though crews didn't show up in Tampa until Feb. 6, Hartman says that race officials have been working with Tampa officials for months, obtaining permits and arranging support, including pumper trucks from Tampa Fire Rescue.
Nye says that race organizers lucked out by following the Monster Jam as a stadium event.
“They already ripped up the field,” he says, standing on the dirt where the grass used to be.
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The race will have a decidedly military flavor.
“I think we should put the uparmored Hummer with the gun out front,” says Hartman, working on some last-minute layout plans.
Aside from the Para-Commandos and the large contingent of troops and veterans racing, there will be a number of military vehicles parked throughout the stadium area, says Nye. And items like inert bombs, which will be dug into the ground, tail fins showing.
As the racers make their 300-foot muddy crawl under the barbed wire, they will be hearing the sound of twin 50-caliber machine guns being fired from a Vietnam War-era vehicle called a Mule.
“They'll be firing blanks,” says Nye. “But it will be loud.”
Nye says he hopes that with such a large military presence here, the race will become a signature event for Tampa, rivaling the Marine Corps Marathon and the Army 10-Miler.
It is already attracting a large contingent of elite racers, who travel around the world competing in obstacle courses.
The Special Ops Spartan Sprint offers a top prize of $2,000 to the first man and first woman who complete the course, $1,000 second prizes for each sex and $750 for the third-place finishers in each category.
The elite runners will take off first, starting at 8 a.m.
Hartman says that the winners will finish in less than 30 minutes. The rest of the field, he says, can take up to twice as long.
Anyone not able to complete an individual obstacle will have to do 30 squat-thrust exercises called burpees.
“It's only fair,” says Nye.
And the course doesn't end until racers run through a gauntlet of pugil-stick bearing “gladiators.”
“You'll have to get through three to four gladiators, who will try to block you,” says Hartman.
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A portion of the entry fees, which ranged from $75 to $100 depending on sign-up date, will go to military-related charities, says Nye, including Support The Troops, the Green Beret Foundation, the Black Dagger Military Hunt Club and Team Red White and Blue.
The race is free to spectators and there is still time to enter. Online registration is closed, but competitors can sign up on Saturday for $150.
There will also be children's half-mile and mile sprints, says Hartman. Children's entry fee is $30.
And for those who want to help, volunteers are still needed, says Nye.
For more information, go to spartan.com